I Was a Midwife at the Birth of Polyamory
And what a long, strange trip it’s been
I’ve never been in a monogamous relationship.
I started early, from the time I figured out boys and girls are different. I took two dates to my high school senior prom, then, years later, I lost my virginity in a threesome.
In the late 80s, when I started exploring romantic relationships, “polyamory” wasn’t yet a word in circulation, and the first poly community was still a gleam in Usenet’s eye. The whole idea of trying to without monogamy, back when i first started navigating the shoals of romantic relationships, quite transgressive, even heretical, in a way it isn’t today.
When I first started writing about polyamory, I’d been with my first wife for nine years. She and I started out from the very beginning in what would now be called a “polyamorous quad,” though of course, we didn’t have that language back then.
She very nearly started dating my best friend instead of me, and my best friend’s girlfriend asked me out 24 hours almost to the minute after I started dating my first wife, so we had a fluid (no pun intended) relationship where she and my best friend were lovers, and my best friend’s girlfriend were what might now be called “snogging friends” (friends who kiss and make out), though we didn’t have that language either.
“You mean there are other people like us?”
When we discovered the language of polyamory, and with it the idea that other people were exploring the idea of relationships beyond the couple, it crashed into our lives much like a brick thrown vigorously through a window might rearrange the plants on the planter.
My wife self-identified as a monogamous partner in a polyamorous relationship, though she had a number of long-standing boyfriends alongside me, some of whom were romantic and intimate partners for seven or eight years. Identity is complicated, as it turns out.
We didn’t really understand what we were doing—didn’t even really have language for it—and had no community around us, no institutional knowledge that would help us find our way.
So we made it all up as we went along. Some of what we did worked. Some of it was fun (I have particularly fond memories of my friend renting a video camera for a foursome that involved an entire can of whipped cream, back in the days of VHS). Some of it…didn’t work so well.
We also made a lot of missteps along the way. We thought if we could come up with the right set of rules, insecurity could be legislated away. We believed veto (the ability to command your lover to break things off with another lover) was the secret to curing insecurity, and explicit hierarchy could manage relationship conflict…ideas that turned out to be not just wrong, but wrongheaded.
In 1997, I was publishing a small-press underground ’zine with a friend of mine, and I put my musings on polyamory on our Web site. I wasn’t writing for an audience, but writing for myself…writing the things I wished I’d known years earlier.
Those parts of the site exploded (in fact, there were months we outstripped the bandwidth allotment our Web host gave us), so when the small-press ’zine wrapped up, I ended up keeping the site live, as it still is to this day.
A Brave New World
By 2006, the world had changed. The Internet helped popularize polyamory, and a whole new language to describe these relationships started to emerge.
The norms and standards of polyamorous relationships went through several seismic shifts in those nine years. In the mid-1990s, polyamory was exotic, something that lived at the fringes.
Montel Williams broadcast an episode about polyamory in 2005 that introduced it to mainstream America, and suddenly polyamory became very much something that “couples” did, with hierarchy bounded by rigid rules that separated the “primary” partners from “secondaries” were the norm.
As the 21st century dawned, poly changed yet again, becoming something people did, rather than something couples did. Networks, solo polyamory, relationship anarchy…ideas that would have seemed quite bizarre only a decade earlier were now gaining currency. Couples in hierarchical relationships still existed, of course, but new paradigms were replacing the old.
My relationships had also changed. After eighteen years together, my ex-wife and I had called it quits. Rules-based relationships with rigid hierarchies—relationships I’d once championed—no longer seemed ethically defensible to me. I saw firsthand how they disempowered others, and could no longer be part of explicitly hierarchical relationships.
I thought, you know what? I’ll write a book. But not a book like my Web site. I imagined something more personal, something more immediate and raw.
I registered the domain “morethantwo dot com” on January 3, 2006, as the future home of the book I wanted to write. I put together an outline of the book I wanted to write, penned (well, typed) some sample chapters, and sent out queries to book publishers.
Fifty-three queries, to be exact, all of them neatly bundled up in flat manila envelopes and carried to the post office, because the book publishing industry is surprisingly conservative, and nonfiction publishers and agents tended to prefer physical mail over email.
Then I sat back as the rejections pour in.
“Nobody wants to hear about polyamory”
From those 53 queries, I got somewhere around 40 rejection slips. The rest never replied at all. A good percentage of the rejection slips said the same thing: “We don’t think there’s a market for this. Nobody wants a how-to on polyamory, but if you ever write a memoir we’d love to see that.”
That wasn’t the book I wanted to write. So with a sigh, I pointed the domain morethantwo dot com to my existing pages on polyamory, went back to writing on the Web, and forgot the book.
Over the years that followed, the polyamory scene grew and changed even more. Every American city had at least one polyamory meetup group, and probably several. Newspapers and TV shows talked about polyamory. (I could always tell when a major TV channel did a segment on polyamory—there’d be a spike in server traffic to my site the next day.)
My relationships changed again, too. I moved to Atlanta for work, away from my long-term partners, and then later to Oregon, so my relationships (including the relationship with the woman who is now my wife) became long-distance.
I found myself open to much more free-form relationships—not quite solo poly or relationship anarchy, but drifting in that direction.
I started dating a woman in the UK who is quite a lot kinkier than I am, and during an orgy she hosted in a castle in France, met the woman who is now my co-author. (Ten years later, we started writing novels together at another orgy in a manor house in Lincolnshire, when I wrote what would become the first paragraph of our first book together on her naked back.)
In 2010, a friend suggested I dust off and revisit the idea of a book on polyamory, and even offered to contribute financially to the project.
I returned to that outline and those sample chapters. Fortunately, I’m a digital pack rat and keep everything (seriously, I have archives of emails dating back to 1992 and source code files from my TRS-80 days dating back to 1983!), and started again.
On February 2, 2011, I had made enough progress I repurposed the morethantwo dot com site to announce the coming of a new book on polyamory. I even tinkered around with ideas for book covers for this new book…I’m not an artist, but I hoped they might be a starting point for a proper book cover artist to work from.
In fact, the Wayback Machine still has an archive of that original announcement from February 2011 with a chapter outline of the upcoming book.
After that announcement, I repurposed the morethantwo dot com Web site yet again, this time as its own separate site on polyamory, with all the content from the original site plus more, and I started writing, both on the Web site and on the book.
My ideas about polyamory kept evolving, as my romantic life kept changing. I got things wrong along the way, naturally, especially around issues like veto and hierarchy.
I’d started out a strong advocate of veto. It seemed logical if one person felt threatened, they should be able to make the threatening relationship go away. Then I swung to the other extreme: adults can make their own choices about how to interact with each other, so if two people I’m dating have a problem it’s their job to sort it out.
(Neither of these approaches really works, as I’ve learned in the last few years. This is one of those things for which there seems to be no clear, simple answer.)
About two years later, on August 6, 2012—the day the Mars Curiosity rover landed—I met the person who’d later become the coauthor of More Than Two.
I set up a blog on the More Than Two site. The very first blog post talks about bringing her on board with the book project. Co-creation is my love language, so sharing this project with her felt natural and effortless.
My life now looks very different from my life in 2014, when More Than Two was published; or my life in 2006, when I first started work on a book called More Than Two…and radically different from my life in 1997, when I first started writing about polyamory on the Web. In some ways it‘s’s hard to believe I‘m even the same person.
I’ve lost an 18-year relationship I’d been in since I was 19 years old, moved across the country twice, escaped a relationship marked by physical violence…and along the way completely abandoned my ideas about what relationships “should” look like. The thing about the Internet is it preserves things that in past times might have been ephemeral, so it’s easy to see my early writings about polyamory that, today, make me cringe.
Brave New World…no, sorry, wrong book
When More Than Two finally published in 2014, eight years after I first sent out those disheartening query letters and four years after my friend persuaded me to pick it back up again, it was lightning in a bottle. It outsold anything I would ever have imagined in my wildest projections.
It’s not a perfect book, far from it. And as I have grown and changed in the way-too-close-to-a-decade since it first appeared, there are some ideas in it I think bear re-examination. There are problems I don’t know the answer to, situations I once thought I understood but now realize I don’t.
Polyamory has exploded in the last decades, with countless people trying countless approaches, some of which never would have occurred to those of us trying to figure out how to make it all work back then. There’s new institutional knowledge growing up; every polyamorous relationship is in a sense its own experiment, and all those experiments are giving us a sense of what works and what doesn’t.
I got some things spectacularly wrong in my own life. It’s been incredibly gratifying to hear how many people have benefitted from More Than Two in their own lives. I know it’s traditional to dump on millennials, but honestly, theirs was the first generation to grow up in a world where polyamory is at all normalized, and I think they will be the ones to show us how it’s done.
I’m looking forward to all the new books that will step up to move the state of the art along.